The Sham Battle Of Manila

PrintPrintEmailEmailTo most Americans, in 1898, the Philippine Islands seemed as remote as the Land of Oz. But suddenly, after Commodore Dewey’s smashing victory at Manila Bay, they appeared to be ours for the asking. But matters were not so simple, for the Philippine people were in revolt against the Spaniards, who had been their masters for three and a half centuries. When American troops finally landed near Manila, they faced not only the Spanish garrison but hostile and suspicious Filipinos. The result was eventually to be a really serious shooting war, but for the moment it was pure comic opera. The following account is taken from Leon Wolff’s book, Little Brown Brother, to be published in January by Doubleday.


During the evening of February 4, 1899, Private William Grayson of the 1st Nebraska Volunteers, on patrol duty in a suburb of Manila, shot and killed two Filipino soldiers who were intruding upon his outpost area. The incident was similar to others which had preceded it, with the exception that this one touched off a war which lasted over three years, caused the deaths of over 200,000 Americans and Filipinos, and marked America’s first armed entry upon the imperial stage. As to the Philippines, only a few months previously our own people (in the phrase of Mr. Dooley) had scarcely known whether they were islands or canned goods. What was Private Grayson doing there?

The train of powder leads back to the late 1860’s. With the Civil War just ended, a peace reaction would seem inevitable; instead there followed a remarkable period of bellicosity that brought the United States to the brink of war several times in a generation. This is no place to assess the blame, or to evaluate the incentives, concerning the jingo debaucheries which crowded each other out of the headlines in such rapid succession; it is enough to observe in retrospect that the United States almost seemed to be looking for trouble. When the unhappy Cubans rebelled against Spain in 1895, when “Butcher” Weyler slapped them down with unprecedented harshness, when trade between this country and the island almost stopped—all this and more was serious enough; and now America’s “yellow press” played its famous part in emotionally galvanizing Congress and the public. The sinking of the Maine in Havana Harbor was the catalyst that precipitated McKinley’s war message of April, 1898. Der Tag , at long last, had arrived.

One of the few Americans who knew that Spain owned the Philippine Islands as well as Cuba was Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt; he had, in fact, ordered Commodore Dewey of the Asiatic Station in advance to attack the Spanish fleet at Manila, should hostilities arise. So it was that Dewey’s squadron did duly and spectacularly triumph there on May 1. Having done so, he and his ships brooded ominously in the bay outside the capital city, unable to capture it but showing no sign of going away. Something more than the mere annihilation of an antiquated and utterly harmless enemy fleet had motivated Washington; something was in the air, and its name was Benevolent Assimilation, otherwise known as Manifest Destiny.


Spain had been exploiting the Philippines with characteristic brutality and ineptitude for over three centuries. Many had been the fruitless native revolts against Castilian misrule, and especially against the friar orders which dominated not only the Islanders but Spanish civil and military authorities as well. Only two years earlier, the biggest of all Filipino uprisings had broken out under the leadership of a hard, calculating, twenty-nine-year-old nationalist named Emilio Aguinaldo. But it followed a pattern far different from that in Cuba; it was stunningly successful, and by the time Dewey prevailed at Manila Bay the insurrectos had gained almost total control over the land mass of the archipelago. Little more than the Old (walled) and New cities, which together comprised the capital, held out against an inchoate mob of some thirty thousand natives, a tenth of whom were armed with rifles.

To complicate matters, Aguinaldo had already proclaimed Philippine independence. A democratic provisional government had been put into effect—on paper. Native legions were ready and anxious to storm Manila. Theoretically his army and ours were allies, although the Philippine expeditionary force under Major General Wesley Merritt had not yet left San Francisco. Furthermore, the Filipinos neither wanted nor needed Merritt’s men; they could take Manila easily enough by themselves with the static assistance of Dewey’s blockade. As the American Eighth Corps prepared to sail, suspicions grew in many landsSpain, England, France, Germany, the Philippines- and in the minds of some U.S. citizens that Uncle Sam was contemplating the chain of islands in a manner not wholly chivalrous. They were certainly very rich, very beautiful islands, and their commercial potential had barely been tapped by Spain.

Few realized, however, that by inheriting the Philippines legalistically (so to speak) from Spain we might also have to acquire them militarily from the over-wrought little brown Malays who lived there. Aguinaldo and other top Filipinos in the provisional government had become increasingly alarmed over the possible turn of events. Time and again they warned Washington through indirect channels that they would fight rather than exchange one master for another. All too plainly the stage was being set for a massive aberration in traditional U.S. foreign policy.